This was like turning up to work on a Monday morning to find your company had been bought by Enron, you’d been relocated to outer Mongolia on half-pay and handed a seat on the same desk as the guy with pungent body odour.
From a performance last Tuesday that oozed character, class and commitment to a display of such utter ineptitude that it deserved an X-rating.
How and why Swindon Town managed to shift so rapidly down the gears in such a brief space of time only the management and players at the club know, but it was horrible to watch.
There were isolated moments of encouragement. Louis Thompson showed huge promise in a 20-minute home debut that will, unfortunately, be remembered for a bizarre own goal. Jay McEveley continued his decent run of form at left-back. Simon Ferry showed how much he has matured as a player and an individual by assuming the responsibilities of team captain.
Oh, and there were a couple of shots on target.
Otherwise it was abject, bitterly disappointing and perhaps not even worth the £10 entry fee – a real shame for the commercial side of the club, who had recognised the nature of the tie and reacted accordingly.
Like against Leyton Orient and Colchester, Scunthorpe and Hartlepool, Town couldn’t find any fluency. Passes went astray, possession wasn’t so much given away as gift-wrapped, and all hopes of another famous cup run were extinguished in a 90-minute whirlwind of pain for the 6,000-odd Swindon fans who turned out.
Perhaps there was an element of arrogance hanging over all associated with the club in the build-up to the game, and I include myself in that.
Macclesfield at home was a guaranteed place in round two, wasn’t it? I mean, Stevenage were second in League One when the Robins made them look like amateurs and Town proved themselves every bit a Premier League side’s equals in midweek.
How wrong we were. Maybe we all need to look at our expectations and airs of grandeur. Maybe we should have recalled the examples of Crawley, Histon and old-school Stevenage in recent years.
Paolo Di Canio said after the game that the performance made him realise that his players were little better than average. If we’re taking that comment in the context of just one afternoon, it may be a rare occasion where the Swindon boss dealt in containment rather than hyperbole.
Macclesfield should be given some credit. They did their homework and came with a gameplan which was thought-through.
They pressed out of possession and held their nerve. No Town player was allowed near their penalty area without being swallowed in a flood of blue shirts. They sussed out their opposition, two leagues above and with a budget that dwarves their own, and it showed.
Of course, if Swindon had put in a shift resembling anything like mediocrity then the natural talent this Robins squad has – depleted or otherwise, under an embargo or otherwise – would have forced a positive result. I’m sure of that.
But they took their chance when that display didn’t arrive from their hosts.
In an even opening to the game, former Town winger Anthony McNamee had the first shot in the second minute, cutting inside to drill the ball at Wes Foderingham from 20 yards.
At the other end, Andy Williams’ rampage into the Macc box was ended by a swarm of blue shirts before Troy Archibald-Henville headed Gary Roberts’ cross from the right wide of visiting goalkeeper Lance Cronin’s goal.
After 15 minutes, Archibald-Henville skewed his shot wide from the edge of the area as the game quickly entered a pattern of trial and error. Very little seemed to go right for Swindon despite their endeavour, trying the crowd’s patience in the process.
It took 27 minutes for the Robins to produce a movement which matched their high standards. Neat two-touch, pass-and-move football down the left ended with Roberts crossing to the near post where Adam Rooney scooped a shot over the crossbar.
A familiar, intricate free-kick routine on the half-hour ripped the Macclesfield defence in two as McEveley and Roberts combined to play in Raffa De Vita, only for the winger to toe-poke at Cronin.
As the first half went on, so Swindon gathered pace. Roberts volleyed Williams’ cross at Cronin and then headed tamely at the visiting stopper before Nathan Thompson’s vicious strike from range brought a comfortable save from the overworked keeper.
Going into the break goalless and unconvincing, Di Canio asked his players to become more clinical in the second half.
His request fell on deaf ears.
Clear-cut chances became rarer. Aden Flint saw his header hacked off the line by a Macclesfield defender and De Vita sliced wide. And then the balance of the game shifted dramatically.
In the 62nd minute, Foderingham leapt cat-like to his left to turn Keiran Murtagh’s thunderous strike from range wide, but he could do nothing with Tony Diagne’s free-kick a minute later.
It seemed an innocuous enough situation for Town, with Diagne standing over the ball 35 yards from goal, but somehow the Macclesfield centre-back managed to thrash in a fizzing, swerving shot.
Cue delirium amongst 139 traveling fans from Cheshire.
Playing as poorly as they were, it was always going to be hard for Swindon to haul themselves back into the game.
Sixty seconds later, however, the task was even more difficult.
In the middle of midfield, Flint went straight through the back of Amari Morgan-Smith. Referee Andy Davies was like a cowboy on the draw in reaching for his cards. Flint saw red for the second time in three home matches.
To be fair to Town they woke up in the final 20 minutes and stand-in captain Simon Ferry should have levelled with quarter-of-an-hour left but could only fire at Cronin from four yards on the half-volley.
Louis Thompson lashed over from 20 yards and Williams sent a free header wide as chances dried up, and the afternoon was summed up by Macclesfield’s fortunate second in added time.
Thompson tracked back 80 yards, having given Matthew Barnes-Homer a 30-yard head-start, to recover possession for Swindon but then overhit his pass-back which beat Foderingham and ended in the back of his own net.